2012 has been the year that kinky sex entered the mainstream; at least, it has been the year when kinky sex has been talked about endlessly in the media, to the equal delight and bemusement of people who have been indulging in it for years. Much of this, though not all, was down to the phenomenon that was Fifty Shades of Grey, which opened the eyes of millions of (mainly) women readers to the erotic possibilities of submission and spanking.
Many BDSM enthusiasts welcomed the greater awareness and social acceptance of their lifestyle that has followed. At the same time, as many knowledgeable critics noted (including Adele Haze here) the Fifty Shades books were rooted in the author's fantasy and imagination rather than actual knowledge. As such, they could give at best limited insight into the actual world of BDSM. At worst they were misleading. Also quite badly written, but that's beside the point.
Nichi Hodgson does know the scene, and from two distinct perspectives: she worked for a time as a professional dominatrix, while being a submissive in her personal life. Her book explores both these aspects of her life history. It's not a novel, at least it is not presented as such, nor is it, as erotic memoirs of this type tend to be, anonymous. Her decision to use her own name is a brave one for someone who already has a public profile as a journalist and broadcaster (although as she has written extensively about sex, including alternative sex, in the past) especially as a large proportion of the book consists of explicit, even pornographic, sex scenes and unflinching descriptions of her domming activities.
The cover promises to introduce the reader, assumed to have read Fifty Shades, to the real-life counterpart to the novel's Christian Grey. But there's rather more (and less) to it than that. It owes as much to Bridget Jones' Diary and Belle de Jour than to the EL James trilogy. An extended prologue concerns a long-term and largely "vanilla" relationship with a Greek boyfriend, which fails amid the pressures of cultural divergence and mid-Twenties metropolitan ennui. Sunk in gloom about the break-up, and trying to fund endless unpaid internships by temping as a hospital administrator, Nichi is saved by Mistress Sapphire, a dominatrix she meets at (perhaps appropriately) a Halloween party. Sapphire recruits her, initially as a "vanilla girl" whose job is to sit on a throne while Sapphire humiliates a PR man (compared cuttingly to a waxy ham). But our Nichi, rechristened Jade, is soon turning her talents to everything from verbal humiliation to full strap-on sex, the passage describing which is one of the most memorable in the book.
Nichi/Jade finds the work "psychologically intriguing" and also, increasingly, a turn-on. At least when the client is attractive. It's also highly remunerative: much more so than the hospital job, and the hours are better. The Independent's recent story exposing what looked like a scam offering to match impecunious female students with wealthy sugar daddies (provided they first passed an "audition") drew attention to a growing phenomenon of the tuition fee era. But trying to clamber on board the London media merry-go-round without a trust-fund to support you can prove far more challenging than student finance, with its organised loans system. Nichi Hodgson is most certainly not the only young journalist to discover an unconventional means of financing her writing career, though she is unusual in talking openly about it.
Eventually, Hodgson finds a "proper" job at a magazine (unnamed, but work it out for yourself) and hangs up her whips. Instead, she meets Sebastian, a somewhat Byronic artist with whom she begins a torrid, sadomasochistic, sexually exploratory but ultimately unfulfilling relationship. They meet up about once a week for intense sex sessions but little more; he never phones and is emotionally distant. You get the idea. He's a narcissist with commitment issues; she mopes and tries to work out what's going on in his head. She's in love with him; the closest he comes to a romantic gesture is to implore her to send him YouTube clips of her reviewing the papers on Sky News. He claims to have an inability to fall in love, but the problem may just be that Nichi, being short, blonde and bosomy, doesn't sufficiently resemble Sebastian's ideal woman, who is Queen Rania of Jordan. In a last-ditch attempt to save the relationship she helps him fulfil a castration fantasy involving a large pair of scissors, but while it turned him on it left Nichi an emotional wreck. So they go their separate ways and we all breathe a sigh of relief. The book itself winds down slowly, ending on an optimistic note when another domly artist enters her life.
Bound to You was written over a mere six weeks this autumn and at times it shows. It reads well - once it gets going, which isn't until the Greek boyfriend is out of the picture, it's something of a page-turner. But the structure is rather episodic, and there's an ambiguity of tone. It's unclear whether Hodgson is trying to educate her readers or turn them on. There's also a vagueness with time: dates don't add up, so that identifiable events happen at impossible times. This may be intentional fictionalisation. In fact, the whole story might have worked better as a novel. Hodgson is good on the psychology of dominant/submissive relationships and there are some memorable passages both erotic and hilarious, especially those that describe the intricacies of her dominatrix work. The problem is that Sebastian, the supposed "real-life Christian Grey", just isn't interesting enough to sustain the role of romantic antihero; although (I assume) he's a real person, he's too much of a cliché to convince as one. The much-anticipated kinky sex doesn't seem to amount to much, either: he tugs her hair and spanks her, while she has exposive orgasms. I suspect there was more to it than that. And the submissive Nichi in the book seems far removed from the firecracker of real life, especially during the Sebastian passages.
Dominatrix Nichi, on the other hand, seems like a lot more fun. But perhaps that's just me.